Setting a movie in the New Orleans area is always a tricky proposition. On the one hand, you couldn't ask for a city with more atmosphere and local color. Every street corner in the Big Easy possesses its own sordid history and every bayou seems to murmur buried secrets. At the same time, all of this Cajun-flavored ambience can overwhelm the movie to the point where it almost becomes just another tourist video. That's what happens in The Skeleton Key, a paint-by-numbers supernatural thriller that's more interesting for its locations than for its story.

Kate Hudson stars as Caroline, a young nurse who accepts a job as a live-in caregiver for an elderly stroke victim named Ben (John Hurt). Ben and his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) live in a rundown mansion on the outskirts of New Orleans. From the moment she shows up, our intrepid heroine notices that there's something not quite right about this crumbling estate...or its inhabitants. For one thing, Violet has a strict no-mirrors policy in the house for reasons she doesn't like to explain. She's also reluctant to talk about the exact circumstances surrounding her husband's stroke. (For his part, Ben seems to live in constant fear of his wife.) And one day while poking around the attic, Caroline stumbles upon a locked door that, when finally opened, reveals a dark secret involving the house's previous inhabitants. As she investigates the mystery, this avowed skeptic soon finds herself taking a crash course in local legends involving hoodoo magic and human sacrifice.

The Skeleton Key was written by Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, Reindeer Games), who loves to throw third-act twists into his screenplays, regardless of whether they actually make narrative sense. This film features a similarly tenuous surprise ending, although, to be honest, it's the only part of the movie that's genuinely intriguing. The rest of the picture hews so closely to the haunted-house formula, you can even predict when you'll hear the next music sting. At least director Iain Softley (K-Pax) and cinematographer Dan Mindel make the most of the setting; the bayou sweats with foreboding and the mansion itself looks like something out of an Anne Rice novel.

In fact, the house displays far more personality than the lead actress. Working overtime to tone down her innate sunniness-her best strength as a performer-Hudson is unable to make this thinly written character spring to life. Caroline is just another in a series of lovely blanks the actress has played since her breakthrough role in Almost Famous. Ultimately, the real star of The Skeleton Key (aside from good ol' Nawlins itself) is Rowlands, who plays Vivian like a Southern version of the Kathy Bates character from Misery. The veteran actress seems to be having a grand old time stomping around the set terrorizing everyone in sight. Here's hoping that some enterprising filmmaker takes notice and casts her in a more memorable ghost story soon.
-Ethan Alter